One-on-One Q&A: Josh Koury - Director, "We Are Wizards"
We Are Wizards, a feature documentary directed by Josh Koury about fans of the Harry Potter phenomenon, had its world premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival last month. Koury’s next stop on the film festival circuit is the New York Underground Film Festival on April 5 & 8. Then he heads down to sunny Florida to the Sarasota Film Festival on April 12 & 13, and next moves onto IFFBoston on April 24 & 26 (FYI, after the 4pm screening on the 26th there will be a wizard rock concert with the bands Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, the Hungarian Horntails and the Whomping Willows.) I had the chance to *interview Josh about his new film and his experience on the fest circuit, both as a filmmaker and a film programmer. He’s formerly the Short Film Programmer and Programming Manager at the Hamptons International Film Festival and also formerly the Programming Director and Co-Founder of the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, which had its last bout in 2006.
* I am now calling my filmmaker interviews: ‘One-on-One Q&A.’ It’s just a little spin on a traditional audience Q&A, except that figuratively speaking, the audience has left the building, and The Film Panel Notetaker gets to ask a bunch of questions directly to the filmmaker.
Harry and the Potters, a wizard rock band in Josh Koury's documentary We Are Wizards. Photo courtesy of M.A.L. Productions.
TFPN: How much of a Harry Potter fan were you before making your film, and what gave you the idea to choose this subject for a documentary?
Josh: I was a fan of the books, not so much the movies. Close to three years ago, the film’s producer Gerald Lewis and I got together and threw around some ideas and one of them that came to the table was We Are Wizards. I was a fan, but I also knew there was a subculture out there that should be explored. When we started looking, it was kind of a snowball effect, everything just started opening up. The more we looked, the more we found. It was pretty remarkable how large the fan subculture was. It was important for us to document the fan culture in the pivotal moment between the fifth and sixth book. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. It just so happens that this fan culture is still thriving, but it felt like that was a time to make this movie. That gave us a feeling of urgency. I didn’t expect most of our characters to be really great people. They’re really funny and interesting people on real levels, which was important for the film.
TFPN: Were there more groups and people you didn’t get a chance to include in the film?
Josh: The fan culture is enormous. It’s far bigger than what the film depicts. In order to make a movie that was truly about the subculture…everything, I just don’t know if that’s a realistic film. That’s definitely not a film I was interested in making because the subculture is so massive. What we needed to do was go through and cherry pick some of the people we associated ourselves with and cared about and felt like we wanted to portray their stories on screen. There’s probably more than 400 wizard rock bands, we only showed about five. There were hundreds of fan sites, we only show a few. What was more important for us was finding characters that stood for something and also we really related to, and I think that was important. Everybody in the film, we respect greatly. We respect their work. We like them very much. You can feel that when you’re watching the movie, I hope. That was a result of choosing our characters wisely.
TFPN: Some of the subjects you interviewed in the film, including Heather Lawver, faced legal issues from Warner Bros. Did you also have to deal with rights & clearances at all to use any of the Harry Potter-related images in the film itself?
Josh: We were very careful to not include anything that might infringe on copyright. We tried to depict this in the film as well. I think Warner Bros. has changed a lot since 2001, and that was with Heather’s issues. I think they’re much more lenient with the fans. There’s a community that’s been built around them and I think that’s the journey they went through in 2001 and I don’t know they want to necessarily go through it again because I believe they’ve got a common understanding between their interests and the fans’ interests. That being said, we had the rights to make a documentary or nonfiction film, as journalists you have that right as long as you’re careful with the material. That ultimately makes the difference. We tried to be very fair with Warner Bros. depicting their side. This wasn’t a boogeyman movie. This wasn’t a big corporate entity versus the little guy. We tried to make it more about the people. I’ve said this at screenings before: at the end of the day in a strange way, the movie is not even about Harry Potter. It’s about people, their struggles, stories, exploration and need to create. Some people walked into the movie theater and were a little disappointed because they wanted more Potter. It was interesting making a movie that was more than that. If you’re making a movie that just panders to fans, or you’re just making a movie that literally talks about all the fan outlets and wizard rock bands and crazy websites, that’s fine, but I’m definitely very interested in personal stories and finding something within the people that audiences can share and associate with. I think that really helps to humanize the film. These aren’t ridiculous nerds or fans who are “obsessed.” These are real people and you can feel that in the movie.
TFPN: We Are Wizards had its world premiere at SXSW. What was that experience like for you?
Josh: People really responded positively to the film. SXSW was the perfect launching pad for the film because of its musical tie-in. I’ve been to Austin, but never to SXSW before. I’ve worked at festivals. I’ve been around. It’s one of the best festivals I’ve ever been to. It’s the vibe there and the attention paid by the press and the amount of people that come out. I would go there if I made another film and I got accepted. The reception to the film was pretty remarkable. The first show was sold out. The second one at the Paramount Theater was not, but I think that’s because it’s a 1,200-person capacity. But we had 400 or 500 people there at 11am. That’s not a bad screening. One of the things I was particularly proud of was when people came up to me and said, I’ve never read a book and I’ve only seen one movie or not seen anything, but it didn’t matter, because your film is not really about that. It didn’t make a difference that they didn’t understand the Harry Potter world. Some people came up to me and said they hate Harry Potter. If you can get through to those people, then I think that’s a sign of a successful film.
TFPN: Has Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling seen your film yet?
Josh: She is just about the hardest person in the universe to get a hold of. I don’t know, but I think if she ever had an opportunity to see it, which I would love, I think she would like it because I think she very much respects the idea of being inspired and creating something from nothing and working creatively from the ground up. And that’s the way she has always written her books. And that’s the way she started as an unknown and created this massive world that’s treasured by millions of people. One of our characters, Melissa, is still in touch with her and she does interviews with Melissa often and they’re friends to a degree. That’s something that is rare. I think that Rowling still recognizes the value of participation. I think that’s what would hopefully resonate with her.
TFPN: What has the experience been for you going from film programmer to filmmaker and back?
Josh: It was a funny little journey for me. I started with my first film, Standing By Yourself, which did really well and ended up with a theatrical release in New York for seven awesome days and was really well received by critics. After that I was so inspired by the whole film festival experience that I started the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, which we ran successfully for five years. At the same time, I started with the Hamptons International Film Festival. I love festivals and I love making films. It gave me a different perspective for sure. Of course I made a lot of contacts through that, but it also helped train me on how to see as a programmer. Programmers have very little patience if a film is working for them or not. Some of them watch all the films, especially if it goes through a screening committee. I think that it’s helped me to understand that side of the world a little better. When I started with my first film, I took everything so personally. I got rejected from this and that. It was tearing me a part. Then I realized after working at a film festival, it’s not that way. There’s lots of rules and premiere status is a big thing. Just because it doesn’t get in, doesn’t mean it’s not good, just maybe it didn’t work. I think this new film, We Are Wizards, is getting pretty good reception from film festivals and I hope it will have a great run. If we can keep that momentum going for a while, that’s all we really want. We didn’t really make this thing to sell. We just made it because we wanted to make something that was engaging. My last film was released five years ago. I went a long time without making another film because I got involved with film programming. I’m still interested in programming, and I love it, but I hadn’t felt that filmmaking bug in a while, because it left me and I got it again. The most important thing for me was to keep that moving and keep going. Making films is what I definitely feel most passionate about. Of course hopefully it will do well and we can some of the money back we invested and all this good stuff, but what’s also important for me is to find that next story and start working on it.
TFPN: What is next for you?
Josh: I have some ideas, but we haven’t locked any in yet and can’t talk about because I don’t know which one I’m going to do yet, but there’s definitely a couple of really good ideas. I’m going to work with the team that made We Are Wizards and get some stuff rolling.
TFPN: Do you want to stay on the documentary track or make narratives?
Josh: No, absolutely documentaries. I grew up making narratives, but documentary is definitely the track I’m headed on. I love finding stories. Finding something that’s worth being put on a screen is tough, but it’s important to do and I think that’s what excites me most. That’s why ultimately we stuck to only five or six subjects in We Are Wizards because I think if we showed 100 subjects, this would have been a retrospective, and that’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is characters and real people and finding their inner story. We could have had Heather just talk about her experiences with Warner Bros. and then call it a day, but it was important to talk about her illness and other issues and aspirations beyond that, the second layer underneath Harry Potter. I think that’s what we tried to do and that’s what we’ve been told we did and I think that’s important.